Untitled (Woman at Work)
signed 'Husain' (lower center)
oil on canvas
20 x 20 in. (50.8 x 50.8 cm.)
Painted circa late 1950s
The Collection of Thomas and Martha McKee Keehn
Acquired from the above by Abe and Jan Weisblat, circa early 1960s
Sotheby's New York, 10 September 2012, lot 1
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art:The Progressives, New Delhi, 2001, pl. 48 (illustrated)
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Lot Essay

“It was in the early years, that Maqbool Fida Husain created the essential idiom for his art and it provided him with the navigational resources for his later journey. The layered vocabulary of his paintings, as complex as India itself, also set the tone for his preoccupation which was to tap the pulse of a nation in its making, viewing it from the street as it were. In doing so he virtually re-invented India and he continues to do this at each stage of his art.” (Y. Dalmia, ‘M.F. Husain: Re-inventing India’, M.F. Husain: Early Masterpieces 1950s-70s, exhibition catalogue, London, 2006, unpaginated)

From his humble beginnings as a billboard painter in Bombay in the late 1930s, Maqbool Fida Husain successfully developed a unique artistic vocabulary to become one of India’s leading modern masters. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Picasso of India,’ his deep engagement with history, civilization and heroic epics aided him in breaking from tradition and the rigidity of academic painting styles, while never losing sight of the art heritage, energy and rhythm of the vast Indian landscape.

Early in his career, Husain would join the newly formed Progressive Artists’ Group, founded in 1947 on the eve of Indian Independence. This collective of likeminded artists took in the forms and idioms of Indian folk art, classical painting and sculpture, combining them with Western styles and techniques to produce a unique mode of expression – a new, modern art for India. Husain along with fellow members of the group, including Francis Newton Souza and Sayed Haider Raza, emerged as a cultural standard bearer in independent India, his art exalting in the liberation of the new democracy but never hiding from the painful legacies of its birth. The Progressive Artists’ Group remained together formally for only a few years, but was as impactful as it was brief, propelling Husain and his contemporaries to become pioneers of Indian modernism.

Untitled (Woman at Work) is a formative work, created at a crucial period during the evolution of the artist's oeuvre. Painted in the late 1950s, it straddles tradition and modernity in Husain's characteristic style. Its subject, a seated woman caught in a tender moment comtemplating a bird perched on her toe, is drawn from the artist's observations of everyday life in rural India. The way in which Husain captures her form and posture is also inspired by the rich classical traditions of painting and sculpture in the country that the artist encountered on his travels between 1948 and 1955. In its earthy palette, strong calligraphic lines and the angularity of the subject's figure, however, the painting embodies a decisive departure from tradition and embracing of the modern.

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